Deal or No Deal: The Future of Iran’s Nuclear Agreement

 In International & Transnational Affairs, International Security, Iran, Non Proliferation and Disarmament, Op-Eds/Commentaries

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Iran’s nuclear program has been at the epicentre of most non-proliferation narratives since the beginning of 21st century. From the initial stages of receiving nuclear assistance from US to being sanctioned for their nuclear activities, Iran has managed to remain at the centre of this discourse. In 2015, Iran signed the nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – the US, Russia, France, China and U.K as well as Germany and the European Union. However, with the arrival of Trump presidency, this deal was reopened by the US and has remained controversial despite a wide consensus that Iran has largely abided by the clauses of the agreement.

The Iran Nuclear Deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is unique for a number of reasons. It is an amalgamation of years of negotiation process between countries of widely differing perceptions and interests. It is the coming together of the western powers with Iran in order to sign a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme and ensure non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Over the course of fifty odd years, the series of discourses on Iran’s nuclear programme, since its genesis till the time the deal was signed has evolved significantly. These discourses have impacted and resulted in significant policy changes. Most importantly, it has also led to a process of rapprochement between Iran and the western states making it one of the landmark agreements in recent times. However, the deal also received criticism because the narratives portrayed that Iran got a better deal through lifting of sanctions while its part of the commitment to the non-proliferation requirements was much less.

Unlike the Obama administration that pushed for the deal, President Donald Trump has been clear about his dislike for the agreement and has been an advocate of how this could possibly be “the worst deal”. Owing to this, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement on May 08, 2018 and stated that he would reimpose sanctions until a better deal could be worked out. While Trump’s decision to undo years of negotiation comes from various factors such as Israeli influence, Iran’s support for Hamas and its role in Syria to name a few, it is also due to the perception of the Republican hardliners that there was not enough pressure put on Iran and that the US managed to get a bad deal out of it, and this remains a large part of Trump’s narrative. The US strategy now is to push for a more hard-line agreement and ensure complete isolation of Iran if it refuse to fall in line. This however, has failed because more than two years later there are still no signs of Iran buckling under US pressure, although the economic impact of sanctions has started to bite.

Given the situation, there are four possible outcomes that can be observed – First, Iran is likely to play a victim card and protest to the Europeans for compensations against the unilateral sanctions that affect its economy despite Iran abiding to all the terms and conditions of the JCPOA. In another context, this could also push Iran to retaliate by threatening to pursue uranium enrichment and continue operations in its nuclear facilities while preventing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from inspections. Recent announcements by the Iranian government regarding its nuclear enrichment is a clear indication that they are choosing the latter option. Secondly, while the European countries are disappointed with USA’s withdrawal, there are high chances of the deal falling apart purely based on the fact that the European members of P5+1 are strategically and intimately tied to the US through much larger scope of mutual interests. However, the European countries will aim to renegotiate the deal because of the serious security concerns that might come into play if Iran is pushed towards becoming a nuclear power. Thirdly, lack of commitment from the P5+1 countries might force Iran to second guess about its decision to renegotiate a new deal. If Iran decides to abandon the agreement, there exists a high risk of nuclear proliferation in the region. However, this would only lead to further sanctions from the other European countries as well. Therefore, any decision taken by Iran will have to be done taking all these factors into consideration. Finally, Iran’s strategy going forward will largely depend on USA’s strategy and the increasing economic pressure as a result. While Trump has chosen to withdraw from the deal, he has also stated that he is open to further negotiations to ensure a better deal. It is unclear as to what a better deal entails and therefore, Iran will have to play its cards right yet again to not only stop itself from being isolated and ridden with sanctions but to also prevent its own population from revolting against its decisions.

Another aspect that comes into play with respect to the deal is the role of China and Russia as counter-weights to dealing with US pressure. Along with the European allies, both the countries are against Trump’s decision to leave the nuclear agreement, reintroduce sanctions and renegotiate the deal. Earlier, China and Russia’s involvement remained minimal in the JCPOA. This time around, both the countries won’t allow Iran to be isolated. China and Russia have had historical ties with Iran and therefore, have been reluctant participants in the sanctions regime. However, both the countries will now actively look to counter USA’s unilateral decisions regarding the deal and will support Iran weighing out the consequences.

Iran is currently amidst domestic protests due to hike in fuel prices and bad economic conditions. Despite being an oil rich country, it is unable to reap the benefits of it through exports, due to sanctions. The Iranian government is exactly in the same situation it was in 2015 (politically and economically) when it signed the JCPOA. Therefore, strategically, this could be the right time for the US to give a window of opportunity to Iran to renegotiate. However, given the circumstances, renegotiating this deal is not at the top of the priority list for any of the countries and therefore, the future of the deal still remains uncertain.

Looking ahead at the future possibilities

If the countries come together again at the negotiating table, there are a few things that has to be done differently this time around to ensure that a deal is signed and is followed through. Firstly, a fool-proof clause has to be added in order to ensure that there are no easy exit strategies for any country from the deal. Once the deal is signed, every signatory has to abide by the deal unless there are any violations made by a member country. Secondly, with respect to Iran, the deal should be such that, the benefits of staying in the deal should be far more important than threatening to quit. Thirdly, the P5+1 countries have to ensure that they all have the same goal and approach to the deal rather if they want this deal to succeed. Fourthly, opportunity to improve the nuclear facilities in Iran must be provided but the agreement should be designed to detect and prevent clandestine programs. Finally, any further delay in signing a new deal will only increase Iran’s breakout capabilities which is counter-productive given that it was the need for the deal in the first place. Therefore, the imperative of saving or renegotiating the JCPOA as acceptable to all is never more urgent, particularly in the context of the emerging humanitarian crisis in Iran as a result of back-breaking sanctions.

Swathi Kallur is a Research Intern with TPF. She holds a master’s in international relations from Symbiosis University, Pune. Views expressed are author’s own.

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